Reworked bill to reduce ganja penalties now slated for House before recess -Carrington

With the Alliance For Change (AFC) expected to discuss the proposed bill to ease penalties on marijuana possession soon, parliamentarian Michael Carrington now says it should be back before the House for consideration before it goes into recess in August.

In wake of the widespread outrage that was triggered last month by the sentencing of Carl Mangal to three years in jail for the possession of 8.4 grammes of cannabis for trafficking, both Carrington and the AFC have renewed calls for the removal of provisions of the law that mete out heavy custodial sentences for possession of small quantities of the drug.

Mangal has since appealed his sentence and has been released on bail.

Carrington, a government Member of Parliament (MP), told this newspaper that the upcoming meeting would guide the way forward. Though he regrets that the reworked bill will not be ready by the June month end deadline he had previously set, he appeared confident that it will be ready either next month or before the recess in August.

“This will roll over into next month,” he said.

“The party [AFC] has decided that we are gonna push it [the bill]. It should come up very soon by… next month… I will have at least the full support and the AFC and some members of the opposition may support it because it may go to a conscience vote,” he had said during an interview a few weeks ago.

The bill was tabled by Carrington in December, 2015, and has been left to languish in legislative purgatory since that time.

While noting that he will be doing some fine-tuning to the existing version of the bill, after which it will engage the attention of the House, Carrington has explained that he was not seeking to legalise marijuana but rather to remove some of the jail sentences for possession of small amounts.

Of recent, he said, he has had “a lot of talks” with a lot of groups and people are beginning to understand that it is not about legalisation but just to reduce the sentencing. “But I think it is a difficult task in Guyana. I must say because I think people fear public persecution because it may be considered a drug….A lot of people don’t really want to deal with it because they feel that the public may come down on them,” he said.

The APNU fraction of the governing coalition has not yet indicated publicly whether it will support the bill.

Though Carrington had suggested that it was APNU that delayed a debate of the bill after it was tabled, State Minister and APNU Chairman Joseph Harmon has declined to respond to the assertion. He said that the issue is not about APNU and AFC, but about a member of the government’s side who has filed a bill which is “being dealt with by the government side. That’s the position.”

Attorney-General and APNU member Basil Williams had said that there should be a public vote on the issue, an opinion that Carrington, Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo and the Guyana Rastafarian Council disagree with.

Carrington had called the suggestion silly before pointing out that those who don’t smoke and who may be in the majority will vote against it while the and the people who do smoke will vote in favour.

Jagdeo, while rejecting the notion of a referendum, has said members of the PPP/C would be allowed to vote according to their conscience if the bill is ever put to a vote in the National Assembly.

At the same time, he had stressed that he was not in favour of people being caught with small amounts of marijuana going scot-free. “Let us find another set of sentencing. Sentence them to community work – clean up a school compound – to rehabilitation,” he had said.

Ras Leon Saul, a member of the Guyana Rastafarian Council, has said that no referendum was needed for the use of the “herb” as this is a way of life for Rastafarians. He expressed disappointment that the coalition government had backpedalled from its assurances prior to the 2015 elections and warned that members of the Rastafarian community may not be casting their ballot in favour of the government in the 2020 elections.

“I think they will quiver in their boots when they understand we have the potential to become a balance of power …in the next elections… It takes 5,000 votes for one seat and I am sure right now we have more than 5,000 votes in the Rastafarian community and the ganja using community and that is our leverage really,” he had stressed.

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